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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Shingon Buddhism

Sacred Koyasan: A Pilgrimage to the Mountain Temple of Saint Kobo Daishi and the Great Sun Buddha by Philip L. Nicoloff (State University of New York Press)

For more than one thousand years, the vast Buddhist monastery and temple complex on remote Mount Kōya has been one of Japan's most important religious centers. Saint Kōbō Daishi (also known as Kūkai), founder of the esoteric Shingon school and one of the great figures of world Buddhism, consecrated the mountain for holy purposes in the early 800s. Buried on Kōyasan, Kōbō Daishi is said to be still alive, selflessly advocating for the salvation of all sentient beings.

Located south of Osaka, Kōyasan has attracted visitors from every station of Japanese life, and in recent years, more than a million tourists and pilgrims visit annually. In Sacred Kōyasan, the first book-length study in English of this holy Buddhist mountain, Philip L. Nicoloff invites readers to accompany him on a pilgrimage. Together with the author, the pilgrim-reader ascends the mountain, stays at a temple monastery, and explores Kōyasan's main buildings, sacred statues, mandalas, and famous forest cemetery. Author and reader participate in the full annual cycle of rituals and ceremonies, and explore the life and legend of Kōbō Daishi and the history of the mountain.

Written for both the scholarly and general reader, Sacred Kōyasan will appeal to potential travelers, dedicated armchair travelers, and all readers interested in Buddhism and Japanese culture.

Excerpt: The Japanese medieval epic Heike Monogatari relates that when retired Emperor Shirakawa (1053-1129) expressed a desire to embark on the ultimate religious pilgrimage—that is, to travel to distant India, the land where the historical Buddha had preached—adviser and scholar 0e Masafusa suggested a less hazardous but equally exalted destination. "You may find an incarnation of the Great Sun Buddha on Mount Koya here . Masafusa declared. "Shakyamuni in India and Kōbō Daishi in Japan both attained Buddhahood while still alive. Kobo Daishi's virtue gave light to the darkness that had long ruled the world. Even after his death he continues to sustain his flesh on Mount Koya in wait for the appearance of Maitreya Bodhisattva, the Buddha of the Future."

So the pious ex-emperor changed his plans. With a glittering retinue of nobles and courtiers he journeyed southward from the capital to Mount Koya in the heart of Japan's Kii wilderness. Near the mountain's summit he purified himself in the water of the Tamagawa, the "Jewel Stream" that flows past Kobo Daishi's tomb. He knelt at the door of the burial chamber and prayed directly to the still living saint. Afterward the priests of Kôyasan set before Shirakawa the golden three-pronged vajra Köbö Daishi had thrown from the shore of China in 806 and which traveled miraculously to the mountain where the temple was to be founded. The priests then unrolled an early history of Koyasan on which Kobo Daishi's handprints appeared. In gratitude the ex-emperor donated funds for rebuilding the mountain's central Great Stupa, the primary shrine of the cosmic Great Sun Buddha.

Even before Shirakawa's time pilgrims had begun making their way to Köyasan, drawn by a belief that it was a type of Buddhist paradise and that Kobo Daishi still sustained his life there. The flow of visitors has continued to the present day. Pilgrims now travel more swiftly, of course. They journey by bus or by automobile over modern mountain roads, or on a remarkable train that climbs halfway up the mountain, then trans-fers its passengers to a cable car that continues the ascent. Beliefs, too, have altered somewhat. Perhaps only a minority of today's two million annual visitors strictly believe that Kobo Daishi remains physically alive in fulfillment of his pledge to serve as savior to the Japanese people. Some also question his radical teaching that each person can, with proper dis-position and discipline, achieve Buddhahood in his or her present life-time. Many do believe these things, however. In every season, in all kinds of weather, they walk the forest path to the tomb. There they light three sticks of incense and a votive candle and chant the mantra Namu Daishi henjö kongö. "I take refuge [namu] in the Great Teacher [Daishi] whose light shines everywhere and is as eternal as the diamond." Henjö kongö is the esoteric ordination name of Saint Kobo Daishi. It also is a secret name for the Great Sun Buddha. In essence the priest Kobo Daishi and the cosmic Dainichi ("Great-Sun") are one.

Today's visitors often remain on the mountain for at least one night, choosing among the fifty monastery temples that accommodate guests. They eat the temple meals and soak in the temple baths and walk at dusk in the temple gardens, gazing at stars rarely observed in the crowded cities down below. They attend the early morning sutra readings in the temple sanctuary. They chat with Shingon priests and student monks and strike up friendships with other visitors. A typical itinerary will include a visit to the forest cemetery and tomb on the afternoon of the first day. On the morning of the second day visitors likely will pray at the Great Stupa (Daito) and the Golden Hall (Konc16) and tour Kongobu-ji, the mountain's headquarters temple. After lunch they might examine the magnificent collection of Buddhist art in the Reihokan museum and shop in the temple town for souvenir gifts for friends back home. Some of the more earnest will arrange to take courses in meditation, statra copy-ing, or sacred music, and resolve to return to the mountain in early spring or early fall to participate in a Shingon ceremony of mystical bonding to the Buddha known as Kechien-kanjö. A few visitors will have brought with them the ashes of their dead for blessing and interment near Kobo Daishi's tomb, and may themselves return to the mountain one day in the form of ashes.

Even as it has become one of the most popular destinations of modern Japanese "tourist Buddhism," Koyasan has managed to preserve its basic purpose as a holy place for religious study and practice. Its rich ceremonial life continues virtually without interruption from predawn to dusk. The mountain supports a Buddhist university, a major Shingon seminary for men, a seminary for women, and a large lay religious educa-tion center.2 Kongobu-ji serves as the administrative and spiritual head-quarters for more than three thousand affiliated Koyasan Shingon temples spread around the nation and overseas. Above all, the mountain continues to be a venue of divine Wisdom and Compassion, symbolized by Saint Kobo Daishi seated in his tomb and the golden Great Sun Buddha seated in the Great Stupa.

We begin our own Koyasan pilgrimage as do many modern Japan-ese, riding toward the holy mountain on the Nankai Railroad's Koyasan Express.

KAJI: Empowerment and Healing in Esoteric Buddhism by Ryuko Oda ($20.00, hardcover, 131 pages, Kineizan Shinjo-in Mitsumonkai Publications.; ISBN: 4905757231)
This general introduction to Shingon Buddhism offers the fundamentals of faith and ritual practice. Shingon is
considered by many to be the perfection of Buddhadharma in that it accesses the Buddha's liberating power directly through its rites and mantras. It is an ancient tantric lineage with as much depth and authority as the better-known Tibetan   esoteric schools. Rev.Oda presents a unclouded portrait of the primary doctrines of the Shingon school, and outlines how esoteric union with Mahavairocana Buddha will influence all manner of our life and daily actions, including the state of our health and the health of others.  This is a solid introduction for anyone interested in the living esoteric Buddhism of Japan.

SHINGON: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism by Taiko Yamasaki ($16.95, paperback, Shambhala, ISBN: 0877734437) This survey of the general tenets of Japanese esoteric Buddhism offers several scholarly features such as a glossary of key terms with Sanskrit equivalents.

THE WEAVING OF MANTRA: Kukai and the Construction of
Esoteric Buddhist Discourse By Ryuichi Abe ($40.00, hardcover, 704 pages, Columbia University Press (Kegan, Paul); ISBN: 0231112866)
The Buddhist priest Kukai (774-835) introduced a formative style of full-blown tantric Buddhist tradition in early ninth-century Japan that has usually been interpreted as the establishment of the Shingon sect. Abe shows that Kukai's efforts were not as sectarian demarked as has usually been thought but rather represented a more pervasive influence on all schools of Nara Buddhism through his rich theory of sacred language.
In THE WEAVING OF MANTRA, Abe examines this important religious innovation, much neglected in modern academic literature, asserting a profound influence on Japanese culture, especially in the formation of sacred utterance, chanting and in the formation of classic poetic forms. Offering a radically new approach to the study of early religious history-- combining historical research, discourse analysis analysis, literary criticism and semantics, Abe contends that the importance of Kukai's establishment of esoteric Buddhism lay not establishment of Shingon as in his creation of a general theory of language grounded in the ritual speech of mantra.

Abe thoroughly embeds Kukai within the fabric of political and social life in ninth-century Japan, providing the only critical historical account available in English, and explains how  this general esoteric Buddhism played a critical role in many societal changes in Japan, from the growth of monasteries into major feudal powers to the formation of the native phonetic alphabet, kana. As Abe illustrates, Kukai's writings and the new type of discourse they spawned also marked Japan's transition from the ancient order to the medieval world, replacing Confucianism as the ideology of the State and Court and helping establish a fuller Buddhist theory of governance of the ritsuryo state. Abe also explores the interaction with the Nara Buddhist intelligencia with his general innovations of language and ritual. Kukai's  seminal invention of esoteric Buddhism, is discussed in great detail in reviewing Kukai's magnum opus, Ten Abiding Stages on the Secret Mandalas (Himitsu mandara jujushinron). Abe also introduces a number of Japanese and Chinese primary-source texts previously unknown by Western language scholars.

Instead of tracing Kukai's thought through literal readings, THE WEAVING OF MANTRA explores the rhetorical strategies Kukai employed in his works, shedding valuable light on what his texts meant to his readers and what his goals were: in creating a discourse that ultimately transformed Japanese culture.

This study is a major contribution to Western understanding of a unique cultural saint of Japan. It's analysis is the best and most thorough review of the literature of Kukai in a Western language. Highly rewarding read.

Ryuichi Abe is Kao Associate Professor of Japanese Religious Studies in the Departments of Religion and East Asian Languages and Cutures at Columbia University. He is co-author of Great Fool: Zen Master Ryokan--- Poems, Letters, and Other Writings, and a recipient of the Philip and Ruth Hettleman Award for distinguished teaching.

Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light  by Mark Unno (Wisdom Publications, 2004) review by James L. Ford. Review of Unno, Mark, Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. March, 2010

Myōe and the Mantra of Light

Among the Nara Buddhist scholar monks of the early medieval period, Myōe (1173-1232) is without question the most well known and academically studied. Prior to the publication of this study by Mark Unno, Myōe had already been the focus of three monographs and one dissertation in English, at least ten book-length studies in Japanese, and hundreds of journal articles. Most of these studies have focused primarily on one of three dimensions of Myōe’s life: his Kegon doctrinal reform efforts, his dream diaries, and his dispute with Hōnen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. Mark Unno takes a decidedly different slant that sheds new light not just on Myōe’s life, but also on the widely practiced but little studied esoteric ritual known as the Mantra of Light (J. Kōmyō Shingon) and the nature of Buddhism during the early medieval period.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, six chapters in all, provides an intellectual and cultural history of the Mantra of Light and Myōe’s role in developing and promoting it. Part 2 includes annotated translations of six texts on the Mantra of Light. Four are authored by Myōe and the remaining two are records of his statements assembled by disciples. Representing a variety of genres--daily temple schedules, doctrinal commentaries, and lectures--these translations are by and large the first available on this central Buddhist practice. As such, they shed new light on the evolution of this popular practice and Myōe’s key role in that evolution.

Chapter 1 of part 1 traces the history of textual sources and mantra practice from India to Japan. Unno places Myōe at the center of this historical narrative. Chapter 2 explores Myōe’s efforts to establish the legitimacy and efficacy of the practice. Chapter 3 elucidates Myōe’s understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness and draws intriguing parallels with the Chinese Daoist master Zhuangzi. Chapter 4 explores the role of the Mantra of Light in Myōe’s vision of monastic practice. Chapter 5 examines the tension between the strict boundaries of monastic ritual practice and the “boundarylessness,” particularly for women, of the mantra practice. Finally, chapter 6 offers a number of concluding insights.

Throughout this study, Unno highlights elements of Myōe’s biography that have been little studied and obscured due perhaps to a latent tension with the traditional sectarian approach to medieval Japanese Buddhism. For example, after receiving the monastic precepts at the ordination platform at Tōdaiji, head temple of the Kegon school, Myōe was subsequently ordained into the Shingon lineage. The fact that Myōe is most often associated with the Kegon school is a function of the often anachronistic imposition of contemporary sectarian identity onto a period when this was not a critical feature of Japanese Buddhism. Myōe served the latter half of his career as the abbot of Kōzanji, a temple he revived and which was for a long time affiliated with the Kegon school and Tōdaiji. Kegon is generally classified as part of the exoteric branch of Buddhism. Despite the fact that Kōzanji was established as a temple for the training of Kegon monks, however, Myōe devoted the last decade of his life to the Mantra of Light, a decidedly esoteric practice. Through a penetrating analysis of the ten works authored by Myōe on the Mantra of Light, in addition to his proselytizing efforts, Unno pegs Myōe as the critical figure in its development and popularization. Even today, the Mantra of Light is one of the most widely practiced in Japan. As Unno writes, “Myōe’s contributions should be considered on their own terms; when understood in this way, the mantra can be seen as reflective of his own creative engagement with Buddhism and a lens through which to view the many forces that shaped the Buddhism of the time” (p. 9).

The Mantra of Light derives from a number of Mahāyāna sūtras that trace back to Indian sources such as, in particular, the Sūtra of the Mantra of Divine Transformation of the Unfailing Rope Snare (S: Amoghapasavikrinita-mantra Sūtra; Ch: Bukong zhuansuo shenbian zhenyan jing). The central deities of the mantra are Mahāvairocana and Fukūkenjaku Kannon (Bodhisattva of Compassion of the Unfailing Rope Snare; Skt. Amoghapāśa Avalokiteśvara). This sūtra was brought to Japan initially by Kūkai and its earliest known use dates to the latter part of the ninth century. It did not see wide usage, however, until the eleventh century. Indeed, Kūkai, the “father” of esotercism in Japan, never himself employed the Mantra of Light practice. According to the Mantra of Divine Transformation Sūtra, for one who chants the mantra with a sincere and clear mind, Vairocana Buddha will rid the practitioner of ignorance and delusion. A common practice, developed primarily in the wake of Myōe’s efforts, entailed sprinkling sand blessed by the mantra over a corpse or burial site in order to cleanse the deceased of any negative karmic residue, thus facilitating birth into a variety of Buddha realms. Because the rite was claimed to aid those seeking birth in Amitābha’s Pure Land, in particular, it came to be seen as a supplemental practice to nenbutsu recitation. In addition to being invoked at funeral ceremonies, the sand was also used to cure illness.

Myōe promoted the Mantra of Light as a superior means of achieving birth in Amida’s Pure Land in opposition to the increasingly popular nenbutsu recitation promoted by Hōnen and his followers (pp. 32-35). More significantly perhaps, Myōe emphasized the universal “efficacy of the sand for the living and the dead, lay and ordained, men and women” (p. 40). He thus played a crucial role in the popularization of the Mantra of Light, extending the benefits to practitioners and devotees of all social and religious levels through the use of sand. Even today, as previously noted, it remains one of the most important and widely practiced mantras in Japan. Moreover, the use of sand, advocated by Myōe in particular, became integral to its application and was incorporated into the contemporary practices of other schools such as Zen and Tendai (p. 41). Myōe also highlighted the practice as an example of the complementarity of exoteric and esoteric teachings, proclaiming that the “profundity of the profound dharma is constant. The Shingon is profound because it expounds the shallow as profound” (p. 59). In short, Myōe’s adoption and popular promotion of the Mantra of Light illustrates the practical integration of esotericism into Kegon monastic practice.

Unno contends that it was critical for Myōe to explain, doctrinally, how the sand, empowered through esoteric ritual, could effect a dead person's salvation, and, furthermore, how this soteriological power was sustained over time well after the ritual’s performance. In chapter 3, Unno endeavors to address these questions by deciphering Myōe’s use of the doctrines of emptiness and two truths in his theoretical framework. In particular, he concentrates on Myōe’s Recommending Faith in the Sand of the Mantra of Light (Kōmyō Shingon dosha kanjin ki), an introductory text written for a lay or novice audience that links faith in the Mantra of Light to the twofold truths and doctrine of emptiness. In an effort to explicate the meaning of this text, Unno compares the views of Myōe to those found in the Daoist classic Zhuangzi. From Myōe, he analyzes a little studied passage about mushrooms found in Recommending Faith and from Zhuangzi, he explores the famous passage of Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly. Unno’s stated intent is to shift the focus of comparison away from Hōnen, a preoccupation within many studies of Myōe. In particular, Myōe’s practice of the Mantra of Light is often contrasted with Hōnen’s allegiance to nenbutsu recitation and singular devotion to Amida. Unno rightly notes that this fixation is rooted largely in the later prominence of Hōnen as founder of the Pure Land sect in Japan, which anachronistically distorts the significance of the tension between these figures.

While I fully concur with Unno’s critique of the over-emphasis of Hōnen in interpretations of Myōe, the choice of Zhuangzi is curious. Although it makes for interesting comparative reflection, it is not entirely clear how the similarities (e.g., skepticism of language and reason to grasp ultimate reality) or differences (e.g., notions of selfhood, time, moral destiny, and practices) help illuminate Myōe’s perspective that is rooted in a very different social, historical, and cultural context. If the intent is to understand the distinctiveness of Myōe’s ideas on emptiness and the two truths as they relate to faith in the Mantra of Light, it would seem much more fruitful to compare his views to those of a representative of the Tendai school, the dominant ideology of the day, as opposed to those of a Chinese mystic who lived over 1500 years earlier. Despite this reservation, Unno does an excellent job of bridging the divide between Myōe’s philosophy and his vision of how to live in the everyday world.

This volume contributes to a growing collection of scholarship that corrects long-standing biases and misperceptions about the nature of Buddhism during the early medieval period. First, it reveals the hazards of imposing a sectarian interpretive framework on many prominent Nara monks of the period. Unno clearly shows that Myōe was just as rooted in the Shingon tradition--perhaps more so in the latter years of his life--than the Kegon school with which he is so often associated. Second and as already noted, an over-emphasis on the Pure Land teachings of Hōnen and Shinran too often distorts interpretations of events within established Buddhism of the period. More often than not, the efforts, doctrinal and otherwise, of monks like Myōe, Jōkei, Jien, Eison, Ninshō, Ryōhen, and others are seen as responses to the radical teachings of Hōnen when the dominant Tendai school or the general ethos of the period are the more relevant contextual factors. It is in this respect that Zhuangzi is probably not the most revealing lens for exploring the doctrinal underpinnings of the Mantra of Light’s ritual efficacy from Myōe’s perspective. Third, the prominent tendency to characterize established Buddhism of the late Heian and early Kamakura period as “aristocratic,” as opposed to the “popular and democratic” efforts of the “new” Kamakura founders, obscures the popular (a term I use reluctantly) efforts of monks like Myōe, Jōkei and Eison. In many ways, these luminaries of the established schools in Nara seemed just as concerned with making their teachings and Buddhist salvation accessible to the general population as Hōnen, Shinran, or Eisai. To the noteworthy extent that Unno’s study of Myōe contributes to this trend in recent scholarship, it further problematizes the simplistic divide between “new” Kamakura Buddhism and “old” established Buddhism of the early medieval period. Finally, Unno’s study underscores the strengths and weaknesses of Kuroda Toshio’s theory on the crucial role of a combinatory exoteric and esoteric ideology--widely known as the “exoteric-esoteric system” (kenmitsu taisei)--as the foundation of the social, religious, and political episteme of the medieval period. Myōe, a prominent scholar-monk generally linked to the “exoteric” Kegon school, can now be properly seen as a prime example of Kuroda’s thesis. On the other hand, Myōe is distinctive insofar as his vision problematizes the somewhat monolithic and broad-brushed depiction of the kenmitsu system presented by Kuroda. Exoteric and esoteric teachings and practices were not reconciled uniformly by the competing voices within established Buddhism.

For all of these reasons, in addition to its thorough examination of the little studied Mantra of Light in premodern Japan, this is a worthwhile read for all students of Japanese religion and culture. It is indeed surprising, given the prominence of the Mantra of Light in Japanese religious history, that this is the first monograph published on the topic. Unno is to be commended for rescuing this important ritual from obscurity. One hopes that he will at some point fulfill his plan to publish a second volume on the development of the practice after Myōe.



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